2023 Montreal International Music Competition, Violin Edition.MONTREAL - On Wednesday afternoon I arrived in rainy Montreal, just in time to watch the the first of two Final round concerts in the
"The level of playing is so high this year!" is something I kept hearing from colleagues and audience members - and after hearing performances the first three finalists, I have to concur.
The concert took place Montreal's Maison Symphonique, with three finalists performing a violin concerto of their choice with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and conductor Rafael Payare. The Finals will conclude tonight with three more finalists performing, followed by the announcement of the laureates.
Wednesday's concert featured violinists Dmytro Udovychenko, Nathan Meltzer and Michael Shaham.
Thursday's concert will feature Songha Choi, SooBeen Lee and Ruslan Talas. It doesn't happen with every competition, but in this case, all six finalists chose different concertos. You can watch the performances - both past and future - on the Montreal Competition webpage or the Violin Channel.
Twenty-three-year-old Dmytro Udovychenko of of Ukraine began the evening with a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77. It's a work originally written for the great Soviet violinist David Oistrakh in the late 1940s, but not performed until 1955 due to a political climate in which authorities were quick to punish artists for work they deemed unacceptable. That repressive atmosphere - and corresponding well of mutinous emotion - permeates the concerto, and Udovychenko seemed to have no trouble getting to the heart of it.
Udovychenko just kept unspooling the long and mesmerizing thread that runs through the opening Nocturne, showing great control over the dynamics and pacing required over such a long line. The second movement Scherzo caused some tension between soloist pushing for a faster pace and the orchestra not really budging. Nonetheless it was a rollicking ride and exciting to the end - it was hard not to clap, and in fact I think I heard a few, despite this audience's clear dedication to the unspoken rules of the symphony hall. Udovychenko built the tension in the Passacaglia to a point where he seemed ready to burst - and then as it evolved into the cadenza, he made the music feel exploratory and improvised.
The fourth movement "Burlesque" was so fast and perhaps a bit rough around the edges - but blazing like fire to the end.
The boldest choice of the evening came from Nathan Meltzer, age 22, of the United States - who performed Alban Berg's 1935 Violin Concerto - not a piece that anyone can whistle on the way home, but one of the 20th century's most important works. Berg wrote it "to the memory of an angel," as a requiem for Manon Gropius, daughter of Gustav Mahler's widow, Alma, and the architect Walter Gropius. Manon died very young, from complications from polio.
Berg's violin concerto makes use of Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone principles - an experimental compositional technique that largely dismisses traditional harmonies. But Berg found a way to make it work in a violin concerto, using the four strings of the violin G-D-A-E as a starting point for a tone row that was capable of creating points of harmony. Then Berg wove in a whole lot more, including excerpts from a Lutheran chorale and a Carinthian folk song that he associated with Manon.
Meltzer played the Berg with complete commitment, and with an awareness of how the solo violin voice weaves in and out of the complicated texture of the orchestra, as well as a precision in the way he did so. One really has to let go of traditional expectations when listening to this piece, and Meltzer, playing on a 1797 Storioni violin, proved a trustworthy guide through its complexities.
The evening ended with a performance of Jean Sibelius's Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47, Michael Shaham of Israel, who at age 19 is the youngest of the finalists.
Written around the turn of the 20th century, the opening of Sibelius's violin concerto is often associated with the composer's home country of Finland - a depiction of a beautiful, icy-cold landscape. Of course, it doesn't have to be so. Shaham played with the warmth of a sweet and fast vibrato. From the beginning, he showed wonderful facility in his playing - notes poured forth with ease. He also projected his sound very effectively.
He placed his notes very rhythmically and precisely and on several occasions revealed a very nice up-bow staccato.
Conductor Payare had a great deal of energy in directing the forces for this piece, almost dancing on the podium with his entire body. It was a great way to end the first day of the Finals in Montreal.
I look forward to hearing the other three candidates on Thursday. Again, you can watch the performances - both past and future - on the Montreal Competition webpage or the Violin Channel.
Here are the performances described above:
Dmytro Udovychenko performs Dmitri Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1:
Nathan Meltzer performs Alban Berg's Violin Concerto:
Michael Shaham performs Jean Sibelius's Violin Concerto:
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